(I Love) The Songs You Play

Posted by Nevin Domer on 7. Jan 2010

BEIJING, JAN 7 - In this second dispatch designed to showcase the listening habits of Beijing music industry insiders, Nevin Domer guides us through the murky undergrowth of some of this country's most innovative indepdent bands, past and present.

No - "走失的主人"

When I first came to China in 1999, I was studying Chinese in Dalian and desperate to find my way into any sort of underground music scene. At that time I had heard rumors of a small but active punk scene forming in Beijing and although my infrequent scouting trips to the capital were fruitless, I did discover a few albums released on Bad Head, a young sub-label of Modern Sky, and a small reddish-brown cassette tape from a band called "No." No was fronted by the charismatic Zu Zhou (左小祖咒) who through his solo work would later go on to be called the "Tom Waits of China." The tape was a weird mess of screaming and feedback and after a few listens I put it away because hey, who listens to tapes anymore anyway. It wasn't until I got back to the US that it would be resurrected for repeated listens on many cross-country drives. The song that I picked is the title track from their first release "Missing Master" (走失的主人)。

Top Floor Circus - "We Don't Want You To Understand Us"

I will admit that I never did figure out exactly what Zu Zhou was saying on that song or most of the other ones on that album, a problem that I didn't have when I came back to China in 2005 and found a wealth of punk bands who were all singing in English. As endearing as some of those songs were, I wondered how effective their use of English was. While most bands seemed to be trying to reach out to a more global audience one band from Shanghai was going in the opposite direction. Top Floor Circus (顶楼马戏团) became famous for using local Shanghaiese dialect and word play in their songs. They were conscious of how language is used and also critical of bands singing in English who couldn't be understood by their local Chinese audiences or in many cases even by native English speakers. One of their songs off of the seminal "Lingling-Rd 93 Revisited, Timmy!" (蒂米重访零陵路93号) was a direct statement on this sort of language confusion.

Na Zha - "闹海"

While Top Floor Circus was standing up for the right to be Shanghaiese, there was a new movement growing up north in Beijing centered mainly around four bands who went under the moniker of "No Beijing." Carsick Cars, Snapline and Queen Sea Big Shark have all gone on to become important players in the scene but the fourth band, Na Zha (哪吒), split up before the "Chinese Explosion" hit. Fortunately their spirit wasn't lost as one of the main songwriters, Zhang Pan, went on to form the Gar after finishing up the recordings for Na Zha's album himself. The album is unreleased but for a while was available for download on their douban page. It's full of beautifully crafted pop-songs with one of my favorite being "Downtown Sea" (闹海)。

Molds - "(I Hate) The Song You Play"

Zhang Pan isn't the only musician in the scene to have a string of influential bands to his name and as the scene matures you can trace the lines backwards to not only see the trends but also follow the people who set them, one of those people is Liu Ge. He was an active member of the influential ska-punk band "Ouch" (哎吆) and later the hardcore-punk band "Kill Tomorrow" back when oldschool punk was packing Get Lucky and the Scream Club. More recently he has moved away from his punk roots to set the tone for a new wave of bands and remain a step ahead of the rest of the city. His latest band has yet to stand fully in the spotlight but is a favorite among local musicians.

Dear Eloise - "Castle"

When you talk about influential musicians in the Chinese scene one name that often comes up is that of Yang Haisong. His band, P.K. 14, is over ten years old and has inspired several waves of younger musicians. Besides fronting P.K. 14, he has produced albums by several of the younger bands including Carsick Cars, Ourself Beside Me, 8-Eye Spy [Nanjing] and LAVA | SEA | OX [Hefei]. Lately he has been working on a side-project with his wife with the first album due out on Maybe Mars later this month. The last track "Castle" is a preview of what to expect.

Top Floor Circus photo courtesy of Flickr user shanghaistreets.


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